Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts will present a modern remake of famous Punjabi folk tale

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      The romance of Mirza and Sahiban is a familiar folk tale for Punjabi-speaking people around the world. Written by Pilu in the 17th century, it has been depicted in many movies as a tragedy of betrayal and honour killing. Sahiban breaks her warrior lover’s arrows when Mirza is sleeping to prevent him from warding off an attack from her brothers.

      Vancouver actor Andy Kalirai grew up with this story and wondered what might have transpired had the two lovers had a conversation about why she did this.

      So he decided to speak about the idea with playwright Paneet Singh, and they wrote a script setting this folk tale in modern times.

      “What was her thinking process? Why did she do this?” Kalirai asks during a Straight Zoom call with him and Singh. “We thought we would explore that aspect and then it just kind of went from there.”

      Kalirai acted in The Undocumented Trial of William C. Hopkinson, which was written by Singh and performed at the 2018 Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts.

      It was a landmark event in B.C.’s burgeoning South Asian theatre scene, offering a new sociopolitical take on historical persecution from the perspective of a Sikh man—Mewa Singh—who went to the gallows for murdering a highly controversial immigration inspector.

      Singh tells the Straight that the new play, Dooja Ghar (The Other House)—A Mirza Sahiban Story, feels just as important through an interpersonal and philosophical lens. He says that Sahiban has always been painted as Mirza’s betrayer while they were falling head-first into romantic love, but he adds that there has really been no exploration of the circumstances surrounding her decision.

      “What are her wants and desires and her obligations?” Singh asks. “Those are the things that really drew me to the story when Andy was talking about it. So I jumped on it to kind of adapt a story into a local retelling of it.”

      Singh and Kalirai credit the Monsoon festival for not only choosing to present the play at this year’s festival but also for helping develop it. Back in 2018, Kalirai’s first on-stage performance was at the Monsoon festival, so he feels like he’s come full circle by cowriting Dooja Ghar, in which he is also one of the actors.

      “We’re going to get a chance to see the type of Indian people that we grew up with, which we don’t often see on-stage,” he says. “Not all Indian people are the same, but I feel that a lot of the times we are portrayed in a similar way.”

      Andy Kalirai feels he's come full circle by cowriting Dooja Ghar (The Other House)—A Mirza Sahiban Story for the Monsoon festival.
      Wendy D

      Singh describes the play as a “love letter to the festival”.

      “We really have robust lived experience of what it means to be a brown person from the Lower Mainland,” Singh says. “Because we have that shorthand, I don’t think we ever had to struggle in the building of the world because we both understand the world really well.

      “When it came to the actual storytelling part, Andy brought a lot of the conceptual and really meaty stuff and I brought a little bit more of the structural, pragmatic stuff in,” Singh adds. “It came together quite nicely.”

      Kalirai says that Dooja Ghar will be performed at the Campbell Valley’s Red Barn in Langley because that reflects the way theatre is produced in Punjab. “It’s kind of like a big celebration,” he states.

      Singh echoes that point, noting that it’s really an example of the naqal style of interactive, spontaneous, and often comedic performances often presented in the outdoors in India.

      “We both have a deep admiration and love for that style of theatre,” Singh adds. “But we’re also both western-trained for a lot of our practices. So putting those sensibilities in the same space and then really allowing the agrarian-folk feel to take over the entire environment does a lot of the storytelling for us. Then we’re placing our little plot into this setting that is already doing so much.”

      The Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts will present Dooja Ghar (The Other House)—A Mirza Sahiban Story at the Campbell Valley’s Red Barn in Langley from August 5 to 7 and August 12 to 14. For more information and tickets, visit the website.